A growing number of businesses, including grocery stores and gas stations, are temporarily closing across Puerto Rico as power outages caused by Hurricane Fiona continue in the US territory, raising concerns about the availability of fuel and basic goods.
Handwritten signs warning of shutdowns have appeared more frequently, prompting sighs and groans from customers on an island where 62% of 1.47 million customers are still without power more than four days after the storm hit.
Betty Merced, a retiree who lives in the southern coastal city of Salinas, said she has spent days searching for diesel fuel to fuel her generator to no avail. She uses a sleep apnea machine and can’t risk going without it.
“There are a lot of people with a lot of needs,” she said. “If it’s not diesel, we’re going to be very much in danger.”
Merced said she would travel to the nearby city of Santa Isabel on Friday, and if she can’t find diesel there, she will drive more than an hour to the northern city of Caguas, where at least one convenience store had a “No Gas” sign on the door Thursday evening.
“I didn’t think we would be so many days without power,” she said.
Gas was also unavailable in Salinas after all gas stations were closed Wednesday, community leader Wanda Ríos Colorado said.
“When I saw it, my stomach almost turned,” she said, adding that it gave her flashbacks from Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that hit Puerto Rico in September 2017, resulting in nearly 3,000 deaths and triggering severe shortages of fuel, food, water and cash.
People have also struggled to get their prescriptions as some pharmacies temporarily close.
Puerto Rico’s Department of Consumer Affairs said it is not a shortage of fuel, but rather a disruption to the system resulting from flooding, landslides and an island power outage caused by Fiona as it slammed into Puerto Rico’s southwest corner on Sunday as a Category 1 storm.
Some gas stations were unable to reopen or could not be filled after the storm’s early aftermath, officials said.
Consumer Affairs Minister Edan Rivera sought to allay concerns, saying “there is no basis to talk about a fuel shortage in Puerto Rico.” He added that his agency has also found adequate supplies of basic goods.
On Thursday night, Rivera announced that crews finally restored power to a gasoline distribution terminal in the southeastern city of Yabucoa that had been operating at a third of its capacity because it was running on a generator.
Rivera said this would speed up the distribution of fuel across the island because the terminal can now operate 24 hours a day until the island recovers from the storm.
He said it is 16 days for regular petrol, 17 for diesel and 29 days for premium.
“There is a peak in demand in the most affected areas, but it has normalized as trucks arrive,” he said.
Rivera added that some wholesalers have taken measures to prevent retailers from hoarding fuel.
“Some will say that they have received less product, but it is not that they are receiving less. They asked for a lot, and to be careful, they don’t get everything they ask for, he said.
Rivera also noted that a container ship carrying 300,000 barrels of diesel would arrive on Friday and the product would be distributed from Saturday.
Government officials said they expected power to be restored by Friday in areas not severely affected by the storm, although they did not say when people living in storm-ravaged areas might have power.
US President Joe Biden pledged on Thursday to help Puerto Rico recover from Fiona, saying: “We’re with you, we’re not going away.”
He recently approved an emergency disaster declaration and a major disaster declaration, which would free up more federal aid for those affected by the hurricane. Biden also announced 100% federal funding for debris removal, search and rescue efforts, power and water restoration, and shelter and food for one month.
“We will do everything we can to meet the urgent needs you have,” he said. “And we know they’re real, and they’re significant.”
Associated Press reporter Maricarmen Rivera Sánchez contributed to this report.